WASHINGTON • For everything that LeBron James is for the Cleveland Cavaliers - captain, franchise player, revenue generator and coach on the floor - he had an unfamiliar role during the most critical juncture of their thrilling 121-108 NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday: Spectator.
Cleveland started the fourth quarter with James on the bench and trailing Atlanta by six. That hole quickly increased to nine after Kyle Korver's three-pointer.
What happened over the next 21/2 minutes was the unlikeliest of comebacks, led by Kyrie Irving and Channing Frye who combined for 14 points in the surge, before James returned to the game with the margin cut to just two points.
The thought of a run like that with the stakes as high as they were on Friday - on the road against a team fighting for their play-off life, considering no team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 series deficit - without James' involvement would have been absurd even a couple of months ago.
The Cavs are just 4-15 in the 19 games that James has missed because of rest or injury since he returned to Cleveland in 2014.
"At the start of the fourth quarter, I just told Kyrie I wanted him to be aggressive, look to play fast early and try to play without the screen at times," coach Tyronn Lue said.
"He did a great job of carrying us offensively in the first half and the fourth quarter, and we brought LeBron back and it was a total team effort."
The look on James' face as he sat between Irving and Frye on the post-game podium was a mix of joy, satisfaction and pride.
"We're a team that's destined for greatness," he said, after posting a 24-point, 13-rebound and eight-assist effort.
Friday's win also makes the Cavs the first team in NBA history to hit at least 20 three pointers in consecutive games, as they made 21 three-pointers after setting an NBA-record 25 in Wednesday's Game 2 rout of the Hawks.
Said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer: "If you make a small mistake, they can make you pay. If someone is open, they find them. And right now they are making it at a high percentage."
Al Horford finished with 24 points and Kyle Korver came off the bench to add 18 points for the Hawks.
Said Horford: "We have to make some changes, because what we've done hasn't worked.
"They keep shooting it like that and they'll be unstoppable."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS